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A fish called Unforgettable





Dine in a picturesque setting by the lake at Yum Sep
Dine in a picturesque setting by the lake at Yum Sep


Sarawakians call it King Of Fish. The Chinese call it Unforgettable. Whichever name you prefer, there is no other fish quite like the empurau, James Wong tells TAN BEE HONG.


Steamed empurau
Steamed empurau
A simple but tasty dish of grilled brinjals
A simple but tasty dish of grilled brinjals
WOULD you pay a few thousand ringgit for steamed fish? James Wong’s customers are more than happy to, especially for the King Of Fish.


“The Chinese call it Wang Pu Liao or Unforgettable and it really is unforgettable,” says an enthusiastic Wong, a Sarawakian who has been dealing in fish most of his life.
“It’s my favourite fish. I used to eat it all the time when I was a boy. It tastes really, really good and the texture... words can not quite describe it,” he says.


Wong, 49, also breeds fish on a farm in Sungai Pahang. Among his stock are kelah and jelawat.


For Wong, it’s big fish that counts. His eyes sparkle and he gets all animated when talking about huge fish like empurau, temoleh and tapah.


“He just loves fish,” his wife chips in. “When we go to the market, he heads straight for the fish section.”


Empurau is a giant fish found in many rivers in Kapit, Belaga, Limbang and Lawas. It can grow up to 20kg in size “It feeds on the oily fruit of the engkabang tree, which accounts for the sweet, fruity flavour of the flesh,” says Wong, who co-owns the Yum Sep Thai BBQ And Seafood restaurant in Pandan Perdana, Kuala Lumpur, with Ben Lee.


Whole frozen empurau can fetch as much as RM500 a kg while live fish fetches up to RM1,500 a kg. And this does not include the cost of cooking.

Prices depend on which river the fish comes from. Though found in most of the major rivers in Sarawak, empurau thrives best in swift, clear streams and is very sensitive to pollution.

“Those from around Kapit and Song are the best,” says Wong. To order the fish or to find out more about it, just call him.

You will not find this fish on the Yum Sep menu. Empurau, kelah merah, jelawat, temoleh, tengalan, tapah, patin and ketutu are sold in a shack at one end of the restaurant. The Yum Sep chef will cook them for you. It works out cheaper this way as you won’t have to pay tax on the cost of the fish.

Wong says the fish is best steamed plain. “River fish tastes best this way. Adding too many herbs and spices will mask the flavour of the fish.”

Eight of us are at Yum Sep to try some of his big fish. Unfortunately, empurau is not on the menu but we are having part of a 12kg patin, jelawat and red kelah. Because empurau is caught in the wild and not farmed, supply depends very much on whether the fishermen nab any.

Of the three, the jelawat had the finest texture and flavour. It is steamed with black beans, ginger, scallions, soya sauce and just a dash of rice wine to enhance the sweetness. “Watch out for the scales,” warns Wong. “I left the scales on as the fish tastes better this way.”

The patin is silky smooth and has none of the muddy flavour I had expected. Wong laughs. “River fish doesn’t taste of mud, only lake fish does.”

Yum Sep is located right on the edge of a lake in Pandan Perdana, just a stone’s throw from the MRR2, and shares a parking lot with The Grandeur Chinese Restaurant. You can sit near the lake to enjoy the view and choose live seafood from tanks filled with lobsters, crabs, prawns, fish and geoduck.

Prices are reasonable though seafood is based on market prices. We start with a Glass Noodle Salad (RM12), a zesty salad with lots of herbs, squid and prawns as well as minced chicken. Patong Prawn (RM30) is delicious and a favourite with Malay customers. The hot Thai sauce gets right into the prawns and makes you ask for second helpings of rice. Served with Baked Mackerel (RM20) is a plate of blanched vermicelli, lettuce leaves and sambal. “This dish is even better with kembung,” says Lee, showing how one should place a piece of fish and some vermicelli on the lettuce and add a dash of sambal belacan. Eaten this way, it’s yummy and refreshingly different.

Yum Sep offers more than just seafood. You can get chicken and lamb too. Fresh Pepper With Chicken (RM10) is an interesting dish. One eats the fried chicken with bits of fresh, green peppercorns. Bite into the peppercorns and feel explosive aroma coating the chicken.

The aroma of Grilled Brinjal (RM5.50) is irresistible. “It comes from grilling the brinjal over charcoal,” explains Lee. “We then drizzle teriyaki sauce over it.”

Lee was a chef in a Japanese restaurant before he discovered a penchant for Thai cuisine, which explains some Japanese influences in dishes like Enoki Rolls and the use of mackerel.

“We have Thai chefs and we import most of the sauces from Thailand too,” he assures me. “For instance, the green peppercorns and pickled onions come from Thailand. When we tried to substitute these with local ingredients, the food tasted like Kelantanese cooking.”


AFTER anxiously waiting three weeks, I get a call from Wong who says he has a live empurau and would I care to come over for dinner? Well, try and stop me!

Drooling my way across the city through evening rush hour traffic and swearing at queue jumpers along Jalan Loke Yew, I finally pull into the spacious grounds of Yum Sep.

I sprint through the carpark to find the fish all dressed for the steamer. I could barely contain myself while photographer P.C. Lim takes shots from all angles.

Wong serves me a chunk of steamed fish from the belly, reputedly the best part. I take a bite while Wong serves the rest of the table.

OK, it has a really fine texture that borders on the delicate. But where’s the oomph I was expecting? “Would you pay so much for this? It doesn’t taste unforgettable,” I whisper to Lim.

Before I finish my sentence, I hear Wong grumbling. “Aiyah, this fish no flavour lah. Must be too young.”

Well, the fish weighs 2½kg and measures a little over 40cm long. A juvenile. Most empurau caught weigh about 6-7kg.

Wong is effusive with his apologies. He had to send the bigger fish to an insistent customer in Genting Highland earlier in the day and unfortunately, the smaller empurau was a poor substitute.

“But you must come again,” he says. “I’ll call you when I get a big fish next.”

You do that, Wong. I’m not planning on switching off my handphone anytime yet.


JAMES WONG YUM SEP (Tel: 012-323 2633)
Thai BBQ & Seafood
Lot 28 Jalan Perdana 3/8
Pandan Perdana
Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-9200 1388




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